When it comes to observing feline behavior, nothing is more soothing and relaxing than watching kitties while they are fast asleep. And when they enter dreamland, I am always fascinated by their moving paws, twitching ears, and the gentle sway of their tails. I often wonder if they are dreaming and what they may be dreaming about.
I assume these random movements actually do mean they are dreaming. Many people tell me when they notice this behavior, they too are curious about what their kitties are experiencing. Perhaps they are in the throes of a hunt – chasing a mouse or rabbit, or leaping into the air to catch a bird, or trying to escape being captured by a wild and exotic predator.
Of course we will never know precisely what subjects occupy our cats’ dreams – since cats don’t keep dream journals and they aren’t prone to openly discuss the contents of their dreams with us. When we catch them in the act of dreaming, we may try to interpret their dreams by assuming when a cat’s ears are twitching, they have cornered and are about to pounce on a mouse. But, of course, this is all pure conjecture. Rather than just assuming our pets are dreaming, how do we know these random movements scientifically indicate they are really dreaming?
If we come from the perspective that cats actually do dream, to back up this theory, there has been some intriguing research occurring in the field of animal dreamland. Even though this important area of animal behavior hasn’t been high on the priority list for scientific research, we do know that researchers have already documented not only cats, dogs, birds, and other animals display what is considered the equivalent of rapid-eye movement (REM) – this occurs during the dream stage of sleep. We frequently observe these patterns, such as running and twitching motions when humans are in the REM stage of sleep. Some cats may even make noises, such as vocalizing, hissing or growling when they are dreaming.
We do know cats learn and have excellent memories. They definitely know where we store their food – often reminding us it is meal time by firmly sitting down in front of the storage of their food. The sound of an electric can opener can awaken any hungry cat out of its deepest sleep, even if they are snoozing in a distant part of the house. If you have ever tried to give bitter medicine to a kitty, you may have noticed that when they just see the bottle they can run and hide in record time. Cats also have an uncanny way of thinking creatively – plotting and planning the next move to reach an objective.
So since cats can learn, have long memories, and can think creatively, it really doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that they, just like humans have the capacity to dream about things with which they haven’t personally experienced (such as hunting squirrels or rabbits, or traveling by rocket ship to Mars).
According to Dr. Jean Hofve’s article published on LittleBigCats.com, “Cats sleep for up to 20 hours a day, but only about 15% is in the deep REM sleep state associated with dreaming. The rest is spent napping in a light, easily arousal state, or in quiet, non-REM sleep.”
What makes the REM state of sleep so important? Dr. Hofve says, “REM sleep is crucial for brain development, learning and memory and overall mental and physical health. Experiments have shown that depriving a cat of REM sleep leads to death.”
That is why Dr. Hofve reminds us of the importance of having a safe, quiet, dark sleeping place for you and your cat.
If our cats are blessed with the gift of memory and creative thinking, then it seems only logical they also have the capacity to dream about things with which they are familiar. Whether we will ever know if they are able to dream about things they have not personally experienced will probably remain a mystery. However, since humans have that capacity (and we have much in common with felines), it is certainly possible that our cats have that ability, as well.
What do you think your cats dream about? Tell us in a comment.
By Jo Singer, MSW, CSW, LCSW, (Ret.)